Personal Finance

Take this key step to protect your heirs and retirement accounts

Key Points
  • As part of your financial check-up, review your beneficiary designations for your 401(k), IRA and life insurance.
  • The person you name to receive your retirement accounts and insurance proceeds will override whatever is listed in your will, so make sure that your beneficiary designation is current.
How to protect beneficiaries

All the work you've done to shore up your 401(k), IRA and life insurance is meaningless if your hard-earned cash goes to your ex.

This is exactly the risk that savers take when they fail to review and update their beneficiary designations — the heirs you've selected to receive the proceeds of your life insurance and retirement accounts.

"For many individuals, their greatest assets are their retirement plan and their life insurance when it comes to transferring wealth," said Lazetta Rainey Braxton, a certified financial planner and founder of Financial Fountains.

"You must designate to whom you want those assets to be transferred upon your death," she said.

Here's how to make sure your retirement nest egg and insurance benefits are safely transferred to the right hands.

Legally binding

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Though reviewing your will periodically is a good practice — especially if you've had a major life change — it's not enough to secure your retirement accounts and life insurance.

That's because 401(k) plans, IRAs and death benefit proceeds pass to heirs based on who you name as a designated beneficiary for those accounts.

Failure to review and update your beneficiary designations can result in major slip-ups if you pass away.

Here's a classic clash: You named your spouse as the beneficiary of your life insurance and 401(k) when you started your career, but you eventually divorce and remarry. Your ex could end up inheriting these assets if you fail to revisit the beneficiary designation.

"Be mindful of updating the designation because it's a legally binding document," said Braxton.

"If there were any changes in your mind that didn't make it to the beneficiary designation, it's going to be paid out to whoever is on the form," she said.

When to update

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It doesn't hurt to take a look at your beneficiary designations periodically to make sure that they reflect your wishes.

But you should immediately update those designations if you've gotten married or divorced, if one of your beneficiaries has died or if you've had a child.

Be sure to work with your estate attorney, financial planner or your CPA to ensure that you understand the consequences of your choices and the way they fit in with your overall estate plan.

For instance, you probably wouldn't want your minor child to directly inherit your life insurance proceeds or retirement accounts.

Instead, you'd want to appoint a guardian for your child in your will and arrange for a trust to receive the assets.

This way, you can spell out how you'd like your savings to be used for your child's care and add provisions as to when your child may be able to control the money.

"If you take the trust route, be sure that that trust is listed on the beneficiary form," said Braxton.

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